Freezer Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska

Posted March 29, 2022 at 8:44 pm by

Freez­er Burned is an ongo­ing series for the San Juan Update, writ­ten by Steve Ulvi. Read the pre­vi­ous sto­ry in this series.

Déjà vu All Over Again

My old friend, Archie Fer­gu­son, last sojourned from his Yukon Riv­er vil­lage a few years back to attend a Sasquatch Dis­cov­ery Camp near Dar­ring­ton, WA. You might remem­ber that his main rea­son for leav­ing his village‑a tiny out­post of peo­ple­hood in a vast wild land­scape-to endure the has­sles of nego­ti­at­ing a herd-like soci­ety, was not Sasquatch sleuthing but a quest as old as the Anthro­pocene itself; meet­ing up with an eli­gi­ble gal. Dreams of pitch­ing woo. It didn’t go well.

With COVID final­ly relent­ing for a spell and a grow­ing sense of a good life­time dimin­ish­ing (pith­ily describ­ing his future as “like look­ing through the wrong end of my binoc­u­lars”), Archie called to announce a nos­tal­gic road trip down the Al-Can High­way and beyond. I knew he was men­tal­ly already on his way after a tough win­ter (but the grav­el high­way to the vil­lage wouldn’t be plowed open for weeks yet) by the exu­ber­ant tone of his voice when he left the message.

He was emphat­ic fif­teen years ago that I would sore­ly regret leav­ing the “Great Land” for this banana belt island on the watery edge of Puge­topo­lis. “A place whole­heart­ed­ly grov­el­ing to tourism after a con­cert­ed region­al free-for-all that has all but destroyed a big chunk of Pacif­ic Salmon World. Striv­ing to become a place of abun­dant grey hair, pearl Escalades, osten­ta­tious wealth and a wide­spread belief that stunt­ed red fox, erup­tive Euro­pean hares and herds of sick black­tail deer are some­how natural.”

Archie con­sid­ers indus­tri­al tourism to be about as healthy as a con­firmed case of flesh-eat­ing bac­te­ria. My wife does not pick up the phone when she hears his dis­tinc­tive jive leav­ing a mes­sage. Her back is up about our grand­kids recent­ly learn­ing of the “besot­ted, fer­ret-down-trousers con­test between Archie and Grand­pa” on a brass-cold win­ter night so long ago. She frowns say­ing that “it makes you look damned stu­pid and was unnec­es­sary cru­el­ty for Archie’s ferrets.”

After my long-suf­fer­ing wife and I mulled over the many facets of an Archie vis­it, includ­ing not being here when he arrived, we began laugh­ing at our­selves for our fortress-island-pan­dem­ic-hun­ker-down state of mind. After­all, Archie despite his lack of basic hygiene and Bad San­ta schtick, is real­ly as lov­able and faith­ful a friend as any old smelly Gold­en retriev­er. Some mind-meld­ing and rem­i­nisc­ing about youth­ful adven­tures just might help me cope with some of my grow­ing angst about liv­ing in an exur­ban bub­ble ooz­ing with self-con­grat­u­la­tion rem­i­nis­cent of the smil­ing folks who ascend­ed the steep ramps to board the Titanic.

When he picked up after a dozen rings at his musty slough cab­in yes­ter­day, I was instant­ly remind­ed of the dra­mat­ic effect of lat­i­tude at the pass­ing of Spring Equinox. After the usu­al niceties, while I gazed out at our lush green land­scape, bud­ding plants, temps in the 40’s and ravens cavort­ing in the breeze he slurped tea and accord­ing­ly warmed up to shar­ing his plans.

“Champ, I bet you could use a real­i­ty check. I know that I am way over­due! I have a Nos­tal­gic West­ern Amer­i­ca Vision Quest in mind. I have been dig­ging out the old Ford and start­ing to make it and the leaky camper road-wor­thy. Gonna use my covid stim­u­lus check I saved up. Lots of March sun but still 25 below in the morn­ings so turn­ing wrench­es and clean­ing out squir­rel nests in the seat foam is not much fun.”

As always, we began to wind each oth­er up and riff on shared mem­o­ries, like pals do, of earthy sto­ries of reg­u­lar folks liv­ing life along the banks of The Riv­er in the Great Northland.

Think­ing of the cold I men­tioned the cold snap “when Dick­ie Mott burned up his rig try­ing to thaw the engine with a small fire in a hub­cap under­neath? Then he decid­ed that it need­ed help with a few squirts of gas! The vol­un­teer fire depart­ment guys glee­ful­ly sprayed enough water to encase the black­ened hulk in ice. It stood as a translu­cent sculp­ture to his inep­ti­tude (and emp­ty fire extin­guish­ers) for months.“

Archie chimed in. “That Pow­er Wag­on is still sit­ting over­grown in the wil­lows ya know Champ, even though Dick­ie is long gone. His old­est son, Buck­shot, con­tin­ued the fam­i­ly tra­di­tion in pro­vid­ing vil­lage enter­tain­ment. You were upriv­er, but I bet you remem­ber his ado­les­cent, genet­i­cal­ly hard­wired ten­den­cy to push the edge of the block­head enve­lope. On a can­dy bar dare, with the mer­cury at minus 44F he repeat­ed­ly spit on one hand and then gripped that smooth steel flag­pole at the Post Office for the twen­ty sec­onds agreed upon. Painful­ly stuck (prob­a­bly made worse by his hairy palms) he fran­ti­cal­ly unzipped one-hand­ed to aim a warm yel­low spray as quick­ly as he could. His friends near­ly choked with laugh­ter, while Shar­lene, the churchy post mis­tress stared in disbelief.”

Snig­ger­ing in my mus­tache I offered anoth­er. “Archie, I for­got about that, but do recall that years lat­er Dick­ie and his free-range off­spring built their first fish­wheel, a small one using logs for a raft and just above the vil­lage boat land­ing. One day Buck­shot was check­ing on it after the riv­er came way up. While he stood smok­ing a butt a big tree spun down the bank and lodged under the raft imme­di­ate­ly strain­ing the shore rope until it part­ed with a whip-like crack! Wild-eyed, not know­ing what to do he start­ed hol­ler­ing and leaped on the raft.”

“Oh, hell yes! Champ, that sounds like when Dirty Frank tied off that huge tourist raft to that school bus bumper at the low­er land­ing by the Eagle Bluff.” More post-grad­u­ate lessons in the relent­less pow­er of flow­ing water.

“Yep, so Buck­shot, apoplec­tic as he picked up speed, spin­ning slow­ly out­side the edge of the boat land­ing eddy, quick­ly tied a large loop in the retrieved rope and man­aged to las­so Sarge Black’s big Mer­cury out­board hang­ing on the stern of his old wood­en river­boat tied at the shore­line. Need­less to say, there were a cou­ple of weak links (oth­er than Buckshot’s com­mon sense) in the impromp­tu exper­i­ment involv­ing the physics of mass and momen­tum. In sec­onds, at the moment of peak­ing ten­sion, the poly rope tight­ened to a high C note. While the raft was swung in just enough to be cap­tured by the back eddy, the roped out­board tore out the tran­som and the whole rig went to the bottom.”

Archie was now rol­lick­ing in the hilar­i­ty of the tribu­la­tions of oth­ers. “Then to add insult to injury Buck­shot wad­ed to shore with anoth­er rope to tie up the raft, breath­ing hard after the adren­a­line dump. While suck­ing anoth­er smoke, swat­ting skeets and try­ing to think, the town drunk rolled up in his rust buck­et truck, wrin­kled bumpers rattling.”

“Buck­shot hatched a plan. He asked ‘Drunk­en Dixon’ to turn his rig around so he could con­nect the rope (now anchored at depth by the big out­board) to his ball hitch. They would team up to fix things by pulling the so recent­ly pris­tine out­board out of the drink. Dixon, bad­ly hun­gover, but ener­gized by his tem­po­rary impor­tance, gave ‘er the snooze with tires spin­ning and throw­ing grav­el. The Merc emerged like a beast from the murk, buck­ing and bounc­ing across rocks and plow­ing a fur­row well up the sandy ramp, trail­ing shards of black met­al and plastic.”

“Ya Archie, lat­er I talked with ol’ Char­lie Gun­der­son who casu­al­ly observed the whole thing while hoe­ing weeds in his gar­den. He was buck naked as usu­al and said that it was a case of ‘exquis­ite comedic coin­ci­dence’ that Sarge Black hap­pened to pull in next to Dixon’s rig, ready to take his boat out for a Sun­day spin.“

Char­lie said that “Sarge was smil­ing, six pack in hand, as he stepped down out of his newish truck; a result of oil pipeline over­time earned while sleep­ing for hours in the idling crew bus. He stopped abrupt­ly and stood star­ing, head cocked to the side, with that con­fused look of “what the hell is wrong with this pic­ture”? His eyes went to the knots he had tied around a dri­ven stake then fol­lowed the painter into the water where his boat should have been. A gal­va­nized fish tub and life jack­ets with his name on ‘em bobbed there. His heart must have plum­met­ed as it dawned on him that the dirty, bust­ed up Mer­cury 90 horse bolt­ed to a grey splin­tered ply­wood tran­som at the end of the tow rope was his but he could not imag­ine what had tran­spired. Real­iz­ing that the n’er-do-wells Buck­shot and Dixon, stand­ing smok­ing sheep­ish­ly, were some­how involved, was dis­heart­en­ing in the extreme.”

“Ha. Good damned thing that Sarge was on his meds because he had blood in his eyes as Buck­shot launched into the dra­mat­ic tale of dar­ing-do and avoid­ing cer­tain death with quick think­ing! Buck­shot kept the truck bed between him and Sarge, who was three times his size and hyper­ven­ti­lat­ing the whole time. Dixon popped a beer and stood back. At first, Buck­shot offered up the untest­ed fish­wheel and a cou­ple of old mul­ti-col­ored out­boards as par­tial pay­ment. Dick­ie and Buck­shot took near­ly a year to repay Sarge the $1,200 in repairs, but they did it. But lat­er as fate would have it, their cob­bled togeth­er fish­wheel caught a few ear­ly chum salmon then tore itself apart when the water dropped one night” added Archie.

Well, back to the present. “So why on earth would you leave the steady life in the vil­lage for a road trip to an Amer­i­ca that is com­ing apart at the seams, Archie?”

“The sands of time are con­tin­u­ous­ly trick­ling, Champ. My long dirt nap can’t be too far off. I know you feel that too. I want to sow seeds of hope through sto­ry-telling for ground­ed peo­ple who dream of find­ing the good life in the far North like you and I did in the 1960s and 70s as a dystopi­an future seems confirmed.”

“Oh man, Archie. I don’t think you real­ly real­ize just how pro­found­ly the cul­ture wars have per­me­at­ed the West.”

“My renew­al will grow from being in famil­iar, appeal­ing west­ern land­scapes and rur­al com­mu­ni­ties that have main­tained some dig­ni­ty dur­ing the ter­ri­ble onslaught of cap­i­tal­ism and pop­u­la­tion over­shoot. Fresh bean cof­fee should have helped some! I want to unwind Amer­i­ca back to sim­pler times when “micro-aggres­sion” was a spi­der pounc­ing on a fly. Tak­ing in places you and I rev­eled in back in the days of our youth­ful indis­cre­tions and just liv­ing each day.“

“I need a big dose of nos­tal­gia. But also new nor­mal expe­ri­ences from the absurd to the sub­lime you might say. For instance, I am dig­ging out my old san­dals think­ing of warm sandy beach­es. I have nev­er had a pedi­cure, my neglect­ed ‘dogs’ and curled toe­nails could use some TLC. And remem­ber that won­der­ful swim­ming hole we found near Eugene one very hot sum­mer day in about 1971 that was fre­quent­ed by fun-lov­ing, skin­ny-dip­ping coeds? I would like to see if that bit of Eden still exists…”

“Whoa Archie, come up for some air! If you sub­ject some per­fect­ly inno­cent pedi­curist to a one-hour walk-in I want the video rights! Safe to say that gals just try­ing to make the rent have nev­er seen the Ency­clo­pe­dia of Bad Feet and Toe Nail Odd­i­ties. For good rea­son! Sec­ond­ly, that bucol­ic town swim­ming hole from back in the day is prob­a­bly a nasty soup of agri­cul­tur­al waste, tires and shop­ping carts. Worse yet nudi­ty is no longer prac­ticed any­where in pub­lic by strangers in post-mod­ern America.”

“Alright, Champ I won’t expose all of my ideas to your snark. I’ve read of Dry Falls in that won­der­ful­ly named Sca­b­lands Region, and want to imag­ine the numer­ous cat­a­clysmic Mis­soula flood events. Maybe camp on the back­side of Mt St. Helens and think of ol’ Har­ry Truman’s last moments there at home on Spir­it Lake before becom­ing star­dust him­self once more. I’d sure like to see spring wild­flow­ers in end­less pro­fu­sion, col­or­ing val­leys and slopes in arid regions where the forces of vol­can­ism and deep time are exposed. Like we did that moon­lit night in the Mohave desert so long ago.”

“I am with you, Archie, how ‘bout we take in that coun­try and the road­side mon­u­ments near Lolo Pass where the Lewis and Clark Expe­di­tion raised the fate­ful cur­tain of moder­ni­ty. And super­im­posed is the des­per­ate fight­ing retreat of Chief Joseph and his stal­wart Nez Perce tribe des­per­ate­ly seek­ing peace­ful refuge from set­tlers and their army by head­ing for Cana­da some 70 years lat­er. Those events were like book­ends of the nation­al exult and shame in Man­i­fest Destiny.”

Now on a roll Archie con­tin­ued. “On a lighter note, I know that I have told you about some of my adven­tures after ship­ping home from Viet­nam and try­ing to cleanse my soul of that expe­ri­ence. Work­ing small rodeos in east­ern Ore­gon as a clown focused my mind with the most exquis­ite of views of the whole she­bang; bone-break­ing dra­ma, snot slin­gin’ bulls and a heavy whiff of testos­terone in the dusty air. All for big belt buck­les and a few hun­dred bucks!”

“But I will nev­er for­get the week­end at a sweaty shit-kick­er bar in Burns, Ore­gon when a guy arrived with a caged Orang­utan offer­ing $100 to any­one who could wres­tle with the ape for more than 30 sec­onds. 20 bucks a try as I remem­ber it. Turns out the attrac­tive gal gussied up and traips­ing around egging-on bleary-eyed cow­boys was his accom­plice. They walked out of there with a lot of mon­ey while the first aid sta­tion was real busy patch­ing up hat­less, dazed cow­boys in shred­ded shirts. Espe­cial­ly one slow learn­er who tried three times in a dis­play of text­book insanity!”

“Hey Champ, enough of this alright! Day­light is burnin’. More lat­er on. This will be a cap­stone road trip to remember!”

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One comment...

  1. I start­ed in the mid­dle of this novel­la! What a treat. I will find the begin­ning thread and weave my way thru. These fel­low Amer­i­cans have a tough­ness I don’t pos­sess that also brings them a com­mu­ni­ty I don’t have. (No one has ever offered me cari­bou head if I stick around and chop wood). I may have to change my hors d’oeu­vres’ offer­ings at the next work par­ty back home. It is good to get an under­stand­ing of why Alas­ka is a red state and how they view “envi­ron­men­tal” interference.
    Always good to read some­thing by S. Ulvi.

    Comment by Jamie Rackley-schiff on August 13, 2022 at 8:45 am

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